Confession # 7: When In Haiti Bring Your Camera, But Also Bring Your Respect
While at the beach the other day, Dalencia and I were approached by a complete stranger and his camera. Sitting on my lap and enjoying the relaxing waves of the ocean, me and my girl were minding our own business when a young gentleman came and stood no further than two feet away from my face. He smiled, tilted his head to the side as if to show us he thought we looked cute together, and stood there admiring us for a minute, camera prepped and ready to shoot.
Unsure of his next move, I began to feel uncomfortable, embarrassed, and degraded, because now I had at least a dozen new eyes starring at me- for we were causing quite the scene. I felt insecure, unsafe, and pressured. And those were just the feelings I felt about me. You should have seen how tight I was holding on to Dalencia. Knowing full well he was going to take a picture of us, my mind began to race. I never knew so many thoughts could run through my head so quickly. How dare this stranger take a picture of my daughter? What will he do when he looks at this picture later? Will he print it and hang it up in his room? Will he fantasize about me? About Dalencia? After all, she is in her bathing suit. Oh God, how can I protect her? Should I run? Where is Hunter?
Then without permission this perfect stranger leaned in even closer and snapped our picture.
“Excuse me,” I yelled in Creole, “Why are you taking my picture?”
“Because you and the girl are pretty,” he replied in perfect English.
Relieved that I could battle this ordeal in my own language I looked him straight in the eye, “But you don’t know us, so why do you think you have the right to take our picture?” I asked now slightly flustered.
“Well, you Americans are always doing that to us. You come here to visit and “help us” (using finger quotes) and you guys are always taking pictures of us with our kids in our homes, in our streets, and in our poverty, and you don’t know us either. And you all NEVER ask us if it is okay to take our picture. No, you just take it. So I thought I would try doing the same to you.”
I sighed. I smiled. I relaxed and I put my guard back down. This young gentleman was no threat at all, actually he was was a breath of fresh air. What he said was true and his little social experiment- to attempt to teach the nearest blan (white person) how it feels to be on the other side of the lens- intrigued me.
“What’s your name?” I asked him.
“Jephte,” he replied.
“Jephte, I like you,” I told him.
Confused, he sat down beside me. I guess after his previous statement, my befriending was not what had he anticipated. Perhaps he expected me to tell him to get lost, not sit down for a chat.
I went on to explain how I live in Haiti, how I wasn’t one of the visitors he was referring to, and how I was actually on his side of the issue. These facts alone surprised him and led him to a dozen apologies- none of which I would accept. I then thanked him for helping me to feel, first hand, what a Haitian mother might feel like when a short-term visitor approaches her and her child with a mere smile and a camera for a photo op. The only reason these feelings quickly subsided for me was because I, unlike a majority of Haitian mothers, had the ability and know-how to stand up for myself. And quite frankly, I also knew I had the “right” to my privacy. If I didn’t want my photo taken, he couldn’t take my photo. Most Haitian mothers do not know they have that “right”- unfortunately because us visitors with the cameras have done a poor job of ever really giving them that right in the first place.
Jephte, feeling rather guilty, looked at me and said, “If I knew who you were, I would not have done this to do you. But this was my intention, to make you feel embarrassed, because that is how visitors make us feel when they take pictures of us. I know you know that. But earlier when I saw you, I just wanted one of you to feel what we feel for a change.”
“And I did,” I replied. “Even though I am not a visitor, I felt it. And I am really glad I did.”
We talked for a little while longer, Jephte and I. We did end up taking a few more pictures together, just to remember our time with one another. And before we parted ways I made him a promise. I promised him that I would share his message with you:
If you ever come to Haiti, which someday I do hope you do, bring your camera. This country and its people are beautiful. But also bring some respect. You aren’t here as tourist; you are here to help. And we aren’t aren’t animals in a zoo; we are people. Our suffering isn’t free for all to capture on film. It is real and it is hard and it is personal. Bring your camera, and if you see something or someone you want to take a picture of, just ask. Ask because it is respectful and because if you were on the other side of the camera, you would want us to ask you too.
For more reading on this subject, check out one of my favorite blog posts on the topic by Tara Livesay.
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